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It's now or never after a 17-point defeat.
Although the Portland Trail Blazers competed in the first round against the New Orleans Pelicans as the higher offspring, they have dug themselves into a 3-0 hole. The odds are now against them if they want to try to challenge the Golden State Warriors for a place in the Western Conference Finals. And when they turn the script around, Damian Lillard has to show up.
Lillard's performance during the regular season is almost impossible. Although he plays in a loaded position with many worthy candidates, he should be a fast-lock for an all-NBA spot after he was successful from start to finish. He kept taking heavy punches and shouldering massive offensive pressure on Rip City. He even improved his pick-and-roll defense to become a complete threat. Smothered by Jrue Holiday and a Pelican defense who wants to stifle the life of his offensive game, he has been combing the postseason hard ̵
Through the first two games of the series, he averaged just 17.5 points, 5.0 rebounds and 5.5 assists while filming 31.7 percent out of the field and 31.3 percent from downtown.
" Lillard's fascination is based on his skill in clutch situations, with Big Game Dames closing arguments for All-NBA honors coming in Portland's final minutes." wrote for The Ringer after defeat # 2. "But what is a nickname if it's not true on the biggest stage?"
Somehow the new story did not just go on. It got worse on Thursday night.
If a player looked like he was going to get Monstared before an away win, then it was in Game 3 Lillard. He could do nothing against the defense of NOLA, before he made a couple of hard buckets with the lead already double-digit. And when he did not get any shots that could not find a line, he was coughing on the way to an all-ugly night.
When the game mercifully ended, the floor general had 20 points, three rebounds, two assists and eight turnovers, while 5-of-14 went off the field and 3-of-9 from beyond the arc. His shooting line in the series is now – yes, that helped his numbers – to a lazy 32.7 / 32.0 / 91.7.
Changing that will not be easy. Holiday is locked up on the side of preventing and can handle this difficult match alone. But his work is made even easier by the presence of Anthony Davis, who is waiting to guard the interior when his point guard pushes enemies into his territory.
Lillard just has to make tough, controversial shots. Lightweights do not come. Although you would not know when you're just starting to do it, he's done all year and hit 51.3 percent of his regular season with the next defender in two feet – actually the highest percentage he has against him Any defender area would record.
Now he just seems to be shaken. He failed to build a single bucket of defense that NBA.com rated "very tight" in their first two defeats, but the frequency with which he was fired in this situation was literally halved. That did not change in Game 3, as he was again involved in delays and misfires. He no longer just visits the free throw strip.
That too has to change.
If Lillard flops again, which could be the last contest in the series, that will not detract from what he did in the first 82 games. He has established himself as an All-Star, All-NBA candidate and Rand MVP threat. But it will change his reputation by taking these gestures back to an imaginary clock that shows how comfortable he is with the up to eleven pressure cooker.
Game 4 on Saturday is his biggest stage so far. The stakes were not higher, although the ascent from this 3: 0 pit will be long and arduous. Now Portland needs more than ever to finally become Dame Time.